The entertainment industry is obsessed with copy protection and has been browbeating legislators, courts, hardware manufacturers and content creators with demands for more control over our ability to enjoy its products. Unfortunately, it’s now becoming clear that Microsoft bowed to movie industry demands and built video copy protection deeply into Windows Vista, to our detriment.

Years ago, the recording industry decided that verbally abusing its entire customer base was a good business plan, and then escalated the war by suing thousands of people – not sophisticated pirates, just folks that wanted to listen to music. The result has been an steadily increasing flow of music that bypasses the big companies – their sales are down, the brick and mortar stores are closing, and the acts pushed by the big companies are irrelevant, at a time when more people are interested in music than ever.

The movie industry is desperately afraid that movies will be downloaded as freely as songs were when Napster was thriving. That’s nothing new; the movie industry delayed the sale of movies on VHS tapes as long as possible out of fear that people might enjoy a movie without paying enough for the privilege.

The movie industry learned nothing from observing the recording industry’s protracted suicide, so it has been relentlessly searching for new ways to make sure our choices are limited to things that will generate revenue. They have settled on high-definition video as the mechanism to introduce draconian new DRM restrictions on what we can watch.

Unfortunately, Microsoft signed on to the studio demands and built high-definition video copy protection very, very deeply into Windows Vista. A New Zealand researcher has written a lengthy description of the various mechanisms built into Vista to enforce DRM restrictions and the problems they might cause. It’s a long, sad list.

It’s not easy to summarize the damage inflicted by the copy protection schemes. The short of it is that it is almost impossible to play an HD-DVD or Blu-ray DVD unless a very precise set of equipment is installed; there are many pitfalls that might leave you cursing on Christmas afternoon in a year or two when you try to set up the new equipment you bought in good faith at Best Buy.

It’s worse than that, though. This will affect all of us adversely in obvious and non-obvious ways, regardless of whether you ever plan to watch a high-definition movie:

“Windows Vista includes an extensive reworking of core OS elements in order to provide content protection for so-called “premium content”, typically HD data from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources. Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost. These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it’s not used directly with Vista.”

“. . . Windows content protection will make your hardware more expensive, less reliable, more difficult to program for, more difficult to support, more vulnerable to hostile code, and with more compatibility problems. Because Windows dominates the market and device vendors are unlikely to design and manufacture two different versions of their products, non-Windows users will be paying for Windows Vista content-protection measures in products even if they never run Windows on them.”

These are not reasons to avoid Vista; choosing an operating system involves weighing many things. On balance, Vista looks like the best operating system ever offered for individuals and businesses. But they are reasons to avoid high-definition video like the plague; it is a cynical calculation intended to restrict our choices and the rewards are paltry.

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